Ramadan in Detroit

Ramadan in Detroit

Here in Abu Dhabi Ramadan is essentially a national event, a month of family celebration as well as religious significance, with virtually every Emirati fasting.  In THE NIGHT COUNTER, Fatima doesn’t talk about Ramadan but she is someone who fasts the whole month.  Fatima spent most of her life in Detroit, which is the largest Arab community in the U.S., and Ramadan there is almost like being transported back to Beirut or Amman.  I know this because I spent quite some time there in 2003 working on a cover story for Saveur magazine on Ramadan, focusing in on the charming Rana Abbas and her family.  Much of what appears in THE NIGHT COUNTER about Detroit I learned on that trip.  On the occasion of Ramadan, here is that article again.

FROM SAVEUR MAGAZINE (Cover, December 2003)


For Muslims across the world, all roads lead to Mecca.  For Arab Americans, there’s a short cut that leads to Dearborn, an inner suburb of Detroit strung together by strip malls and fast food chains and anchored by the famed Ford River Rouge Plant, a National Historic Landmark that by the mid-1920s was the largest manufacturing complex in the world.  Arabic calligraphy forms the signs on many of Dearborn’s stores, Middle Eastern pop music booms from the car stereos of teenagers cruising the main drags of Warren Avenue and Schaefer Road, and the local MacDonald’s proudly serves halal Chicken McNuggets, i.e. chicken slaughtered by merciful Islamic law before it is compressed, molded, and shipped here.

Some say Detroit, with Dearborn as its hub, is the largest Arab city outside the Middle East.  Unquestionably, Detroit has loomed large in Arab American lore since the early 1900s, when the first wave of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, arrived here to work on Henry Ford’s assembly line.  They have come from across the Middle East – from Yemen to Syria and Egypt. Each ensuing Middle East crisis has spurred a new wave, the largest being from Lebanon and the latest from Iraq, a steady stream that began after the 1991 Gulf War. White pages in the greater Detroit metro area are filled with Arabic last names, many of families who have long ago assimilated.

Arab Americans, like other ethnic groups, have remained connected to their heritage primarily through food, which aside from a shared language is the most common link amongst Arabs, no matter their original nationality or religion. Arabic food, give or take a few different spices, is Arabic food, and generations have come to Dearborn to shop at its grocery stores, buy sweets at its bakeries, and dine in its many restaurants. At no time of the year is this more apparent than during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, the month I arrived to this city that as an Arab-American I had heard about since childhood.

While I am someone who questions religion more than practices it, I do know the basic pillars of Islam, and fasting is one of them: so they understand sacrifice and empathize with the poor and hungry, Muslims cannot eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during the entire month of Ramadan.  However, what I didn’t know was how this was observed in an American neighborhood that has more Arabs than most villages in the Middle East.  The person who helped me map that all out was my friend Rana Abbas, a 23-year old Dearborn native I had met through mutual friends and whom you can’t help but describe as bubbly and vivacious.

“Detroit is a big city, you know, but when it comes to the Arabs it’s a small town,” she told me with her distinctly nasal Michigan accent, as she highlighted the key shops of Dearborn on a map. “Everyone knows everyone’s business, even if you don’t want to.”

With the use of Rana’s homemade map, a quick tour of Dearborn in the afternoon, revealed a bustling atmosphere that I quickly recognized from Ramadans spent in the Middle East – with a little slush and sleet thrown in for Midwest ambiance.  Like in the Middle East, fasting shoppers, with surprising energy in their steps, scurried from store to store getting the final ingredients for the dishes they were preparing for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast.  Crates of dates, the food traditionally eaten as fasting ends, were present in nearly every store, as was jalab (a raisin and rosewater julep), apricot juice, and tamarind juice, beverages that are often the first liquids sipped at iftar.

When the sun sets during Ramadan, the streets of Dearborn become deserted, with everyone at home with their families eating.  However, every night after iftar, Dearborn takes on a festive mood, come snow or rain, that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.  Rana suggested that I check out Sinbad’s, one of her favorite night spots, in part because her fiance’s brother is a waiter there.  Sinbad’s, and a growing number of similar Dearborn establishments, is a smoky, darkly-lit coffee house of wooden tables and velvet and leather wall benches that provide a clear view of a stage surrounded by Middle Eastern brass kitsch. Iraqi-born owner Akram Allos brings in bands from around the country who provide largely mediocre, tinny cover versions of well-known Arabic pop tunes to an audience that nonetheless claps enthusiastically to the syncopated beat.  Most of the patrons are young men and women, many of whom are on dates or newly engaged.  Aside from each others company, what these burgeoning couples come here for are the 52 flavors of tobacco that Sinbad’s offers for hookah smoking, a bad habit which has seen a renaissance born of nostalgia both here and in the Middle East.

While Sinbad’s and other hookah cafes provide limited menus, Rana advised me that the place for serious post-iftar snacking is New Yasmeen, a spacious, brightly lit bakery with a chocolate-brown and mustard-colored mosaic-tiled floor, tiled Roman-style pillars, and a wall-size mural that depicts the idyllic, sun-bathed Mediterrean landscape of rural Lebanon.  The painting and the heat of the bakery’s ovens are a sharp contrast to the biting cold, ice and dark clouds of Dearborn at night, and it was a relief to step inside and take off the weight of my winter outer gear.

New Yasmeen produces more than 40,000 loaves of pita bread a day and never closes during Ramadan.  “Our busiest time is from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m., after people have gone to the mosque for their nightly prayers,” said Hussein Siblini, 38, a fair-haired, soft-spoken man of few words who owns the bakery with his two brothers.

Families and groups of young men and women in the latest Abercromie and Fitch crowd his brightly lit counter for sahour, the meal eaten late at night before going to bed to face another day of fasting.  They come to line their stomachs from Hussein’s wood burning brick oven with mushtah (a flat bread topped with sesame seeds and eaten with labaneh, a condensed yogurt) manaeesh, (an open-faced pizza topped with an olive oil, thyme, and sesame seed mixture) and ma’ajinates, savory pastries stuffed with either a lemony spinach mixture (fatyir bi sabanikh), a hard white cheese (fatyir bi-jibneh), or a soft beef or lamb and tomato mixture with sweet spices (lahma bi-ajeen).  Older customers shout out orders to the 15 energetic young men manning the counter for items made only during Ramadan, such as sahlab, a sweet and spicy hot milk thickened with powdered orchid root and topped with pistachios and kolaj, a deep fried pastry stuffed with cream and dunked in syrup.  To keep up with the Ramadan rush, some of New Yasmeen’s 40 cooks and bakers – young men in white aprons and older ladies in colorful head scarves, many trained back in Lebanon – work 18 hour shifts.

So prevalent is the profession of engineering amongst Arab Americans that there’s a joke in which a mother tells a new friend that she has a son, and the friend asks what kind of engineer he is. Hussein is no exception. As I enjoyed the tangy tartness of a sumac-laced spinach pie, he told me that he has a Masters in computer engineering from nearby Wayne State, but soon found it more fulfilling to use the education he got working in his father’s bakery in southern Lebanon.

The same is true for 42-year old Palestinian Khader Masri, owner of the popular Masri Sweets.  After arriving here in the early 1980s for his studies, he went back to his hometown of Nablus, on the West Bank, in1987 and realized he wanted to open a sweet shop in America similar to his late father’s famous Nablus shop, as a way of honoring him. A nearly life-size black and white photo of his father making kunafa, a sweet cheese pastry for which Nablus is particularly famous, hangs high over a counter lined with seven different kinds of baklava (assabeh, finger-shaped filo stuffed with cashews, and kolushkor, half moon-shaped filo with nuts, are among the most popular), harisi (a semolina cake drenched in syrup), crescent-shaped anise cookies and French-style cream cakes and sesame encrusted date petit fours.

I only had to tell Khader my mother’s maiden name for us to become instant friends, as there is a long tradition of marriage between her family and the Masris, probably making us cousins of some sort if we had had a couple of days to map out our family trees.  When he took me into the kitchen area, I met his wife, Susan, a petite woman who is the perfect counterbalance to his frenzied energy.  She manages the shipping business and their teenage son and daughter mill about, offering her clerical help if needed.

While Susan takes care of business in the back and Samer, a chatty 20-something Jordanian with the ability to wait on six people at once, manages the front, wiry and fast-moving, Khader overlooks a staff of 21 as he rolls out his homemade filo dough.  Under the fluorescent lights, white walls, endless white sheets of dough, white cheese, white uniforms, and white counters are tempered only by the brown and green hues of fresh nuts, black logs of ground dates, and shiny metal kettles of melting yellow butter.  Two thousand trays of baklava and cookies come out of Khader’s ovens every day of Ramadan. Workers, whom Khader trains on machines imported from Nablus and Damascus, mold cookies, man huge vats of dough, roll up pastry with pistachio nuts (from Turkey, never California, says Khader, because they’re too dry for baking), brush baklava with clarified butter, pour buckets of orange blossom syrup across the trays of sweets as they emerge from the oven, and line up variety trays in pretty patterns.

“See, very organized, very American, it’s like the Ford plant,” joked Khader, as he handed me yet another plate of sweets, insisting that I try everything at least once before leaving. “But I don’t want my employees to go crazy, so every day I change the rotation.  Everyone gets to do everything.  It’s non-stop work from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Ramadan to Christmas.”

Ramadan evenings bring in people wanting atayif, the traditional Ramadan dessert. After it comes off the griddle, this airy pancake is filled with a thick cream, cheese, or walnuts, folded, baked and dunked in syrup – and best eaten immediately.  Which is what I did, relishing the strong squirt of buttery, sweet syrup that comes with the first bite. The only problem is that it needs a cardamom-laced cup of Arabic coffee or a mint tea to temper the sweetness, as do all Middle Eastern desserts, but sadly it’s much easier to get a Coke than a hot drink in Dearborn.  Some traditions just don’t survive a new continent.

Nearly everyone at New Yasmeen Bakery and Masri Sweets fasts the whole month.  “When you work in the food business, it’s really hard,” says Hussein.  “Everything smells so much better.  Your senses are really sharp.  But it’s bearable because everyone is always in such a good mood.  There’s a real feeling of good will everywhere.”

Rana also fasts, as does her entire family.  I didn’t have a chance to spend an iftar with them, but the day after Ramadan I headed over to her house, where her mother was preparing dinner for Eid el-Fitr (Holiday of Breaking Fast), the day that marks the end of Ramadan (and fasting) and marks the first day of the tenth month.

Rana may be from the most well-known family in town, in large part because of their religious and civic accomplishments.  She is the public affairs director at American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a national grassroots organization founded by U.S. Senator James Abourezk in 1980.  Her uncle, Haj Adnan Chirri, is the chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of America, which is spearheading the building of a new $12 million mosque that when completed will be the largest in North America.  The family’s legacy really began in 1949, when Rana’s grandfather, Imam Mohammad Jawad Chirri, was invited from Lebanon by the Muslim community to be its spiritual leader.  He went on to spend years advocating Islamic unity among American Muslims.

“He was invited to the White House three times,” boasted Fatima Abbas, his oldest daughter and Rana’s mother, as she walked across the oriental carpets in her Dearborn home the next day, pointing out the many pictures of her father that adorn the walls.

A dark-eyed woman with a deep, smoky voice that often breaks into robust giggles, Fatima continued to talk while she went into the kitchen to begin preparing the Eid meal for a few of her Dearborn relatives.  She wasn’t sure how many she had invited, maybe 12, maybe 20.  Hovering around her were Hana, Amanda, and Zeinab, her curly-haired nieces, helping her wash parsley and peel garlic.  They often hang out in her kitchen when they don’t have school.  With Arab Americans accounting for an estimated 60% of the Dearborn public school student body, the school board decided several years ago to make Eid an official two-day school holiday.

The girls began fasting half days when they were eight – their choice, they insist, not their parents’ – and all three are proud to say they made it through all of Ramadan this year.  After asking me if I loved hometown hero Eminem as much as they did and if I thought Justin Timberlake was cute, they told me that their aunt’s cooking was so good she should open a restaurant.

“Oh, please,” Fatima blushed, as she poured pan juices over three plump, paprika-brightened stuffed chickens browning in the oven.  “Everyone says that…I was a little worried this morning that I wouldn’t have enough food so I bought a leg of lamb at the butcher on my way back from my Eid prayers.”

The lamb was roasting downstairs, in the family’s equally crowded second kitchen.  In addition to the leg of lamb and the stuffed chickens, Fatima was also in the midst of making two other dishes:  fetee, a layered dish of toasted pita bread, chickpeas, yogurt (she makes her own), meat, and pine nuts and sheikh mashi, eggplants stuffed with spiced ground beef and baked in a tomato and pomegranate sauce until they’re soft enough to melt in your mouth. Meanwhile, the girls began washing dishes and Mohammad, the young man overseeing the prolonged construction of the house’s new addition got chewed out by Fawziah, Fatima’s frail 76-year old mother.

“God, I’m going to die before you finish,”she shouted with the aid of her cane.  He just smiled a beatific smile as Fatima laid out a plate of her homemade preserved olives and raised her eyebrows into a look torn between frustration and amusement.

Fatima wears a hijab, the white head scarf, in public.  Rana lets her long curls hang loose, as do most of the females in the family.  There are exceptions, like Haj Adnan’s 21-year old daughter Vivian, named for Vivian Leigh, who began wearing the hijab last year, a choice many young Muslim women have opted for in recent years.

Relatives kept filing in, each carrying a gift box from Masri Sweets or another sweets shop – the exotically beautiful Randa and Majeda (the nieces’ mothers, both devote Muslims and People magazine junkies), diminutive Rima (Fatima’s daughter in medical school), Rima’s husband, Randa’s husband, Fatima’s brother Ali, his kids, someone’s brother-in-law.  Two card tables were brought out to extend the dining room table.  Plates in a mish mash of china patterns were added as people kept coming in and the nieces were sent off to wash more forks and knives for the table.

Talk shifted seamlessly between Arabic and English and between food and politics, the staples of Arab American conversation. Rana’s eyes teared up when she talked about some of the hate mail and death threats they get at work. Her job at ADC is to deal with discrimination cases, and as the number of unwarranted firings and evictions has risen at such a sharp rate, it has taxed her personally, as well as the organization.

“We have always had an American flag at our office and journalists come in ask if we put that up after September 11.  It’s my boss’s flag.  He got it when he became an American citizen.  No one would ask someone from another ethnic group that,” Rana lamented, tossing a gargantuan bowl of fetoush, a pita bread, tomato, and greens salad traditional at Ramadan and Eid.  “The truth is we’ve done really well here.  There are Arab American engineers at Ford whose fathers or grandfathers worked on the assembly line.”

Rana’s mood perked up when her fiancé Hicham came in.  They met in Lebanon last year through a family set-up, on Rana’s first trip overseas. They both reluctantly agreed to meet the other and fell in love at first sight.  He moved to Dearborn to be with her and quickly become yet another helping hand in Fatima’s kitchen.

In the downstairs kitchen, Fatima got the humus started (her secret to getting the silky smooth texture of Middle Eastern restaurants is to keep the food processor running for 8 minutes) and went upstairs to do one of her five daily prayers.  Meanwhile, Abbas, her husband and a salesman at the nearby Ford dealership, arrived home with some jokes in tow.

But senses of humor were running low, squashed by hunger. After all, for the last month, they had all been eating at sunset, at 5:30 p.m. It was now 7:30 p.m. On the day when they weren’t fasting but rather holding out for Fatima’s cooking, the family was starving. The nieces walked around carrying protest signs demanding to be fed.  Snatching a plate about to be filled with food by one of her sisters, Fatima said she wanted to wait for Haj Adnan, also a salesman at the Ford dealership, as is another one of Rana’s uncles.

Someone said there was no point in waiting  – there wouldn’t be enough room for Haj Adnan’s family of five.  They would have to eat on the second shift, when even more people were likely to show up.  Still, Fatima insisted on waiting.  But when she noticed with horror that her nieces were about to indulge in Hostess Cupcakes to ward off their hunger, she finally gave in to her family. She gathered everyone around the table for a short prayer in her father’s memory.  Silence followed the prayer, but not devout silence. It was a silence tempered only by the quick swish of forks digging in for another mouthful.  Arms reached across other arms as people filled their plates, sampling everything, and sending bowls up and down the dining room table and two card tables.  The phone rang.  Haj Adnan and his family were on their way. The family intensified its eating, knowing that at least some of them would have to soon give up their seats and reset the table for Fatima’s second round of guests.

Mathematics and Olive Oil

Mathematics and Olive OilIn The Night Counter, Fatima is fixated on numbers and it is something that runs through the family for five generations.  She thinks about math when’s she’s cooking, too, as any woman who raised 14 kids probably would—how much to make for each one, how much it was costing, and so forth.  And how many bottles of olive oil to order at the Middle Eastern market is certainly something necessary to be calculated, much as her ancestors would have wondered each year how much olive oil their crops would yield.

Many people ask me anything in the book is autobiographical, and I can honestly say no, but there is a tendency for OTHER people I’m related to have a thing for math.  Me, I was flustered yesterday trying to help my 10-year old nephew with algebra I vaguely recall doing  in 8th grade, which was a long time ago for my brain cells.  But I had a good time with these math word problems with my seven-year old nephew, perhaps because they involve olive oil and pizza.  So if you need any word problems for the weekend, voila.

(And for those of you interested, the photo of olive oil here is of three olive oils from the West Bank, organic oil made under Fair Trade laws to help the Palestinians preserve their centuries old olive groves.   One is distributed by American Friends Society (http://www.afsc.org/mepepla/) and the other two are available at Whole Foods, believe it or not.  Politics aside, the West Bank produces pretty amazing olive oil because of the nature of its soil and landscape.)

Now back to Fun With Math (which I have adapted from a real math book for kids):

Fatima has a problem. For the last 50 years her neighbor Millie has been a very good friend and has entertained her for many hours with her silly jokes. Millie’s about to celebrate her 70th birthday and Fatima wants to give Millie something that will give her a taste of Lebanon.  She has prepared 40 bottles of her village’s olive oil of which she has promised her cousin Dalal half of her final inventory. She would like to give Millie 10 bottles for her birthday. If she wants to keep as many as possible for herself should she first give Dalal half and then give Millie 10 or should she reverse the order in which she gives away the bottles?

Romano Pizzeria offers the following toppings for a standard large pizza: pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and sausage. In addition to ordering a plain pizza, you can order any number of toppings, even all five (which happens to be the “special”).

How many different kinds of large pizza do you have to choose from?


Fatima is a pretty frugal woman. She realizes that if she first gives Millie a gift of 10 she will be left with 30 bottles of which she promised half (30/2 = 15) to cousin Dalal.
40 – (10 + 15) = 15 bottles left for Fatima

If she would give the bottles away in the reverse order she would be giving Princess cousin Dalal half of 40 (40/2 = 20) and then giving Millie 10 as a gift.
40 – (20 + 10) = 10 bottles left for Fatima.

By giving Millie the gift of 10 first she is left with 5 extra bottles of her  fantastic olive oil for herself

You can choose from 32 different pizzas.  Here are the possible combinations: 1 plain, 5 with one topping, 10 with two toppings, 10 with three toppings, 5 with four toppings, and 1 with five toppings.


A week ago I was in Philadelphia reading at the Penn Bookstore, my first East Coast stop.  I was pretty uncomfortable about Philadelphia, as it was a city I had no base in, so I accepted the offers of two friends to come down from New Jersey and New York for the event, bringing along their mother and boyfriend respectively. And maybe I had some Ivy League anxiety, too, as I had wanted to go to Harvard but was turned down not by Harvard but by my parents, who didn’t see why anyone should go in debt when a perfectly good education was available at the University of Minnesota.  So I finally got to make it to the Ivy League, and it turned out great, one day sufficing for the four years I missed.  Philadelphia was very supportive, particularly Penn and the group of young Arab Americans in NAAP (National Association of Arab American Professionals).  And people were so enthusiastic about books and the world in general when I was talking to them at the bookstore.  So I got to experience Philadelphia’s brotherly love.

You would have thought that Philadelphians I met in LA and other cities would have been anxious to recommend the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross’s house to me as I went off to their hometown—or even lunch at Reading Terminal or shopping around Rittenhouse Square or spending an evening on South Street.  But this is what they wanted to tell me about Philadelphia:  “You have to have a cheese steak.”

In fact, my friend Pat, who came down from New York, was able to get her boyfriend, a former Philadelphian, to come along for the ride by promising him cheese steak afterwards.   My other friend returned to New Jersey with a look that said “Cheese steaks? You’re going to go chase cheese steaks?” perhaps having eaten with me enough to know I’m not really the kind of person to go cruise a strange city for cow-related products.

I’d gotten numerous recommendations before I arrived in Philly to know that Jims, Geno’s, Pat’s are the holy triumphant of cheese steaks.  We asked the opinions of some people at the bookstore reading, too.  The bottom line:  Jim’s was inconvenient to get to, so go to the old Italian neighborhood and park near the park, as that is safest.  We got there between a misguided GPS and stopping to question a homeless guy at a gas station, who set us on the right path in exchange for a dollar (normally directions were free, he hinted, but his mom had died just that day, so a dollar would bring him some comfort)  Geno’s and Pat’s  are kitty corner from each other and nicknamed “ground zero for cheese steaks.” Pat decided we’d go to Pat’s not because of the shared name thing but because a student had told us that a couple of years ago Geno’s put up a sign  that said “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH.”  As Italian Americans, Pat and her boyfriend were outraged that an Italian place would do this, so she refused to go there.

While Pat’s was more politically correct, the food seemed to be about the same–large and filled with beef that it would be a stretch to call steak, canned mushrooms, and Cheez Whiz, which I didn’t know they were still making.  The peppers and onions were the ingredients most convincingly derived from Mother Nature.  Greg savored every bit but Pat and I looked at each other and shrugged. We kept taking bites, waiting for the magic thrill to happen, but it never did. However, I marveled at the humongous cans of Cheez Whiz.  P1010636

There is much to love about Philadelphia—its shopping, its historical attractions, its educational and art institutions and yes its food, as in the stromboli and hoagies, but the cheese steak sandwich, I’m not so sure about it.  Maybe it’s like a nostalgia food, like tuna noodle hot dish, that you like more for the memories than the taste. As one young woman explained if you haven’t been drinking, a cheese steak is just cheese (or imitation cheese) and meat on bread and that’s not really such an exciting thing unless you’re starving or drunk.  Now if someone had mentioned Philadelphia Cream Cheese…P1010634

Penn, Cheese steaks, and brotherly love

Penn, Cheese steaks, and brotherly love

The Washington Post Review

It’s pretty cool to get reviewed by one of the book critics you respect the most.


By Carolyn See

Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 14, 2009

Shaye Areheart. 365 pp. $24

Some people write about death, dying and tragedy as if they were death, dying and tragedy. Others — God bless them — just don’t carry the genes for drama or melodrama; they look at the world with all its flaws and suffering, and something about the situation strikes them funny.

First-time novelist Alia Yunis writes about the years after 9/11 and how that sorrowful event affected members of the ordinary, law-abiding Arab American community. She writes about wiretapping and FBI surveillance, as well as an old woman dying alone in West Hollywood, with no one to care for her but a grown grandchild, a hapless, unemployed actor. Yunis takes all this material and stirs it into an immigrant-ethnic cocktail laced with political oppression, but before shaking, she adds Scheherazade, the fabled storyteller who kept herself alive by distracting her tyrannical husband for a thousand and one nights.

Fatima Abdullah is 85 years old and close to death. She’s more than half blind, quite deaf and has trouble with arthritis, but her worst ailment is the systematic neglect of her many adult children. They call her every week or so but give her nothing except weather reports from where they live; they don’t want to tell her anything about themselves, and that’s probably wise. Fatima is not a very charming old lady. She’s repetitive; she gets things wrong, refuses to listen and obsesses on things her kids don’t care about: her mother’s old letters (even though she, Fatima, never learned to read), her wedding dress (although nobody seems to want it) and especially the old family home in Lebanon, which she hasn’t seen in 70 years. Which one of her children should she leave it to? (Her children, and the reader, know it would be a miracle if this house has survived the wars and bombing raids that have transpired through the years.)

Fatima is sure she is dying because for the last 991 days she has had an unlikely visitor to keep her company: Scheherazade. Strangely enough, she has been extracting stories out of Fatima instead of the other way around, but whatever way you slice it, there are only nine days left before death is scheduled to appear.

Scheherazade listens to Fatima fairly impatiently: Surely, she must have listened to thousands of tales of young women who came to America from their beloved old country only to find poverty, struggle, homesickness and disappointment. Fatima, while still a bewildered teenager, landed in Detroit, where her first husband worked in the car industry but died before their first child was born. His best friend, Ibrahim, dutifully asked her to become his wife. The rest of their children followed, each, of course, carrying tales to be told.

Some nights Scheherazade flies out on her carpet to see how things are going with the kids. There’s Laila, in her 50s now and still in Detroit, so fed up with the Muslim faith and the injustice of having to suffer breast cancer that she cooks up a mess of pork chops for the elders of the Mosque and passes it off as veal. Or Dina, a spoiled grandchild, who spends a summer at a refugee camp in Lebanon and realizes there’s more to life than cheerleading and makeup. Or Soraya, a successful psychic, who, 20-something years ago, visited a sperm bank so that she might have Amir, the gay grandson who’s taking care of Fatima right now in his West Hollywood bungalow. Or Randa, who lives in Houston, in dreadful fear that she and her husband will be recognized as being of Arab descent. Or Hala, the good girl who grew up to be a doctor but was imprudent enough to marry a Chinese man, thus incurring the wrath of both families. (And that match produced Brenda, a flaky high-school dropout whose hook-up with a black guy produced Decimal, who carries every kind of blood and every kind of allergy in her put-upon veins.)

Needless to say, with all their trials and distractions, none of these family members had anything remotely to do with the events of 9/11. But Amir, the gay guy and would-be actor who takes care of his grandmother, has been turned in to the FBI by a vengeful ex-lover, and the bungalow in West Hollywood is duly wiretapped and watched by a clutch of semi-delusional agents who are trapped in stories of their own devising. (One of them is a zealous woman named Sherri Hazad.) The agents investigate the daylights out of every member of the Abdullah family, but manage to misunderstand almost everything they see. (It doesn’t help that Amir keeps trying out for parts such as Jesus so that his costumes and long fake beard make him appear sinister, indeed.)

This is a plot-heavy book — I’ve left out several characters and events — and I can only say that when death comes, it does so in an unexpected way. But “The Night Counter” is also lighthearted, full of silly plays on words and comedic errors. In this easy-seeming way, the author aims, without being in any way preachy about it, to give us a short history of the Middle East and the Muslim faith in America — to say: Don’t be so quick to misunderstand us; we are, in so many of the ways detailed here, the same as you. She succeeds, very gracefully.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune and Other Reasons I Love Minnesota

Lake of the Isles

Lake of the Isles

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a great review of The Night Counter in its Sunday edition:
http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/52617702.html (Link also posted under The Night Counter Press & Reviews here)
But that is not the only reason I was excited to do a reading for Mizna (www.mizna.org) in Minneapolis on Saturday.  Minnesota has been a part of my life since I was five-years old and we moved there from Chicago, and I spent several of my growing up years there, as well as attending the University of Minnesota.   Back then, there were no sushi restaurants and luxury spas—in fact, I’m not sure anyone would have even known what those were 20 years ago—and one of the few foreign accents you heard were from my parents’ lips.  It’s a lot more global and trendsetting now, but it’s still mercifully Minnesota. The Twin Cities are notorious for their winters, but with some training and effusive enthusiasm, a very common Minnesota trait, they can be charming.  Still nothing beats a perfect summer day– sun, blue sky, shady trees, lakes, walleye-on-a-stick stands, and soda pop.  Here are some other reasons I like Minnesota:

1.    Everyone talks like me.  No one ever asks, “Are you from New Jersey or something?”  My slight Minnesota accent needs no explanation.
2.     When people say, “You have a good day now,” they actually sound sincere.
3.    To this day, some 40 years later, people still point out to you locations that appear in the opening credits of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” particularly the exact spot where she tosses her hat in the air.
4.    Multi-colored Mohawks and Mullets

Downtown Minneapolis

Downtown Minneapolis

Reasons I love Minnesota

Reasons I love Minnesota

never seem to go out of style here—they ebb and flow in number, but I always run into at least one or two whenever I visit
5.    People actually follow traffic signals and do yield to others, the Scandinavian stock here forever dominating the culture, and ja, that’s a good thing.
6.    You meet vegetarians who like to go hunting and ice fishing.
7.    There is a great respect for the Native Americans who first settled this area (although the poverty and disease within that community remains appalling)
8.    It’s one of the most-educated and/or most well-read places you’ll ever visit, whether you’re talking to a college professor or a pro-wrestler governor.
9.     You can actually drink the tap water.
10.    I’ve never had to question the loyalty or honesty of the people I’ve called friends here, even family friends that go back to grade school.

The Night Counter A Best Bet in Dayton/The Mother Daughter Book Club in Santa Barbara


Chaucer's Santa Barbara

Chaucer's Santa Barbara

The Wright Brothers didn’t write so much as fly, but pretty cool for the book to get such a nice mention in their hometown.

Meanwhile, I loved reading at Chaucer’s (www.chaucersbooks.com) in Santa Barbara last night amidst Fiesta Night traffic, and one of the great moments for me was when a woman in attendance told me that her mother-daughter book club had chosen The Night Counter as its next read.  This mother lives in Santa Barbara, but the other mothers and daughters, including her own, live in other cities and connect for their discussions via Skype.  Pretty cool. As was my friend Janice inviting a friend who turned out to have gone to the same high school as me in Beirut, but hers was a different time, the 50s and 60s, when the American expat community was so large it had its own neighborhood.

Updates: Book Soup and Christian Science Monitor And Entertainment Weekly

The Night Counter is still #2 Bestseller at Book Soup, thank you West Hollywood.  I should be blogging about San Francisco and Seattle, which have been awesome, but I’m waiting for photos.  Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, which reminded me of my students when they say to me, “A B+?  Couldn’t you make it an A- It sounds so much better.”   And here is an excerpted review in the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that I grew up reading as a kid because our neighbor in Minnesota, Mary Ellen Fairbanks, had a subscription and used to tell us all the time, “If you want some legitimate international news, this is the paper to get.”  The review came out on Sunday, a day I actually spent with her two daughters in Seattle, whom I had not see in years and years.

The Night Counter

In a contemporary twist on “1,001 Nights,” a Lebanese grandmother spends her nights telling tales about her Arab-American family.

By Marjorie Kehe August 1, 2009 edition

The Night Counter By Alia Yunis Shaye Areheart Books 384 pp., $24

Scheherazade was the lovely Persian queen who kept herself alive for 1,001 nights by telling stories so enthralling that her murderous monarch couldn’t bear to behead her. So he married her instead. Fatima Abdullah, however, has neither Scheherazade’s narrative flair nor her seductive looks.

Fatima is an elderly Lebanese woman living in Los Angeles with her favorite grandson, Amir. She moved to Detroit from Lebanon seven decades ago and has since had two husbands, 10 children, and 14 grandchildren. At this point, she’s ready to say goodbye to all of it.

Or almost ready, that is. First, she must find a wife for wannabe actor Amir (blithely overlooking his constant insistence that he’s gay) and then arrange for him to inherit her beloved mother’s house in Lebanon. In the meantime, as the successful conclusion of that task drags on, Fatima is content to stay alive for another 1,001 days, spending each night telling her stories to Scheherazade. (Scheherazade apparently, has become immortal, and now travels the globe – beautiful as ever – hearing stories from others.)

Such is the premise of The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s debut novel, the sweet, funny, meandering story of Fatima, her family, and the uneven process of their assimilation into life in America.

Not all of Fatima’s children, who now live scattered across the US, are entirely likable. In fact, most have disappointed her in one way or another. Her only living son, Bassam has spent much of his adult life on an alcoholic bender in Las Vegas, although the events of 9/11 have now shocked him into a promising sobriety. Several of her daughters have succeeded in pursuing what many would consider to be the American dream – but it’s not necessarily the course their mother would have chosen for them.

Fatima makes a grand protagonist – a somewhat befuddled yet strong, independent character who may have rejected much about the US, but sure loves American sports, particularly the Detroit Tigers. (“How could [the Tigers] get swept by the Twins,” she frets, “a team playing under a plastic bag on spongy cement?”) There is also a hilarious scene in which a special FBI agent trained in Arabic (assigned to watch over this “suspicious” Arab-American family with ties to both Lebanon and Detroit) tries to interview Fatima, who mistakes her for Scheherazade, offering her cooking tips and motherly laments which the FBI agent frantically parses for information on terrorist plots.

The Abdullahs are anything but a Norman Rockwell painting, but in their own way, they are a very typical American family. They may have their differences but they also have their stories. And, as Scheherazade points out, in the end, that’s what holds a family (much like a nation) together.

“Stories keep us entertained and enlightened,” she tells Fatima. “And if we don’t know the ending, all the better.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

Screenplay vs Novel in Seattle

Screenplays vs Novels in Seattle

Screenplays vs Novels in Seattle

Elliot Bay Books in Seattle

Elliot Bay Books in Seattle

I gave a talk in Seattle this weekend at the Pacific Writers Network Association annual conference on taking a novel into a screenplay.  As is fairly typical of me, I got into Seattle with half an hour to spare for set up and then my traditional technological meltdown began –this time actually not my fault, as it was the conference center that didn’t have the hook up to the projector for my Mac.  So, as I frequently do, I found myself looking at roomful of people looking at me and me apologizing for a technical glitch.  In compensation, I said I would e-mail them the notes.  Instead, I’ll blog the basic overview of our conversation on scripts and novels.

1.    The explanation for a novel can be more than a couple of sentences.  The explanation of a screenplay should be done in one quick sentence called a logline.  Know your logline before you take your novel to screenplay because anything that follows out that logline will in all liklihood not belong in your screenplay.
2.    Remember that a novel is largely a solitary activity in its execution and consumption, whereas a screenplay is part of the collaborative effort of filmmaking, with the goal of it being seen in a group, rather than solitary, setting.

3.    Resist the temptation to preserve much of your novel by dumping it into flashbacks and voiceovers, which can be quite deadly to screenplays.

4.    A novel can take any narrative form you like (whether others like it is debatable.  A screenplay follows a very clear three-act structure with three major turning points, a mid-point, a set up, an inciting incident, a climax, and a resolution, which is more elaborately explained in the two screenplay textbook basis, Screenplay by Syd Field and Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seager.  (There are several other good books on screenwriting, but these two in my opinon are the essentials)

5.    Keep in mind that television writers live in LA, with very rare exception.  Film writers could possibly live outside of a LA, but also rare unless they have at least done some time in LA.  A novelist can live anywhere she likes but will find that the business center of publishing is New York City.

6.    Agents are interested in projects that already have a producer, director or actor with expressed interest, and producers are looking for writers attached to agents.  So one of the best bets for getting around this vicious circle if your uncle—or least very distant cousin–isn’t Steven Spielberg, is to enter screenwriting contests. Some great choices, all very competitive but open to the general public, are the Nichol Fellowhips, Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition, Carl Sautter Memorial Award.

7.    If a production company asks for your script, it will probably be read by a reader, a hard working writer who is paid little to critique you script for the company.  Readers are quite savvy and often jaded and busy.  They don’t have patience for scripts that don’t grab their attention quickly.  Readers evaluate scripts for plot, theme, setting, pacing, character development, and dialogue.

8.    Unlike novels, scripts should have short scenes, short dialogue, and short narrative descriptions.  Write and rewrite and rewrite until you get there.  Don’t send out anything but your best work as you only get one chance with an agent or producer.

9.    You can’t write novels or scripts without reading a lot of each.  Novel are at your bookstore.  Scripts can be found a Drew’s Script O Rama (website), French’s Bookstore, and maybe eBay.

10.     Stay on top of what is going on with screenwriters by reading trade magazines such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as magazines such as Scr(I)pt.  Be involved in screenwriter organizations, such as the Scriptwriters Network.  These are great places to workshop your scripts, something perhaps not necessary for novels but in my humble opinion essential to screenwriting.